New Enemies, New Strategies: The Dilemmas of Obama’s ‘War on Terror’

(Originally published 11 September, 2014)

9/11 changed the world.  Major events echo through the pages of history, causing ripples decades or centuries later. Its secondary consequences are sometimes a direct result of the event themselves and driven by our perceptions of the significant incident. The more time that passes the more we can continue to analytically interpret the impact of 9/11. The globe enters a new phase in the ‘Global War on Terror’ with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and various other Islamic extremists terror cells and ISIL have in many ways reopened the debate about the war on terror and without a doubt  poses the first serious challenge a terrorist organisation has given to the Obama administration. How Barack Obama tackles this threat will in many ways come to define his foreign policy as president and his role in the war on terror. 

Barack Obama has had a testing year. He has been questioned and criticised from many different angles both at home and abroad by the public, journalists, former and current politicians, myself on occasion, and even jihadists. Some regard his foreign policy as weak, others as necessarily restrained in these thoroughly complex times as the world drifts towards a looming global crisis.

The narrative of the destruction of the World Trade Center, the targeting of the Pentagon and United 93  is relived year on year to honor the memory of the2,977 victims (including 373 foreign nationals) who were murdered that day. Internal and petty rivalries within its the White House bureaucracy had overlooked the escalating threat of Al-Qaeda. The presidency had failed the American people and  those culpable for this failure and the death of so many have yet to answer the questions.

These questions have not been credibly answered. Instead 9/11 heralded in an almost permanent war. America ignited its ignominious ‘Global War on Terror’ and a second dawn for Washington’s  excess use of military power under Bush. I have covered this in detail before so in short war crimes were committed, trillions were lost and several key officials have got away with war-profiteering and murder whilst destroying American ideals.

The first phase of the war against Islamic terrorism was originally successful in uprooting Al-Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan and produced results. Twenty-two important al-Qaeda leaders were killed in a record number of 158 drone strikes which were carried out by the CIA in Pakistan in 2008. This was coupled with the death of Al-Zarqawi controlled a chain of regional terrorist groups across Europe, which carried out  several terrorist attacks in the UK, France, Russia and the harrowing  train bombing in Madrid in 2004. He was killed when a American jet dropped two 500-pound guided bombs, a laser-guided GBU-12 and GPS-guided GBU-38 on his safehousenorth of Baqubah, June 7th, 2006.

Relatively successful yet the costs were staggering and so destructive to American values and those who were caught between the United States’ military machine and that of insurgents and jihadists. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, detained, and tortured, thousands of U.S troops were killed or wounded and trillions of dollars were spent while nasty episodes involving military contracters such as Blackwater and Abu Ghraib prison came to encapsulate the horrors of Bush’s war in Iraq.

Iraq devoid of structure in the wake of ‘Shock and Awe’ became a hot-bed for insurgents and a testing ground for extremist guerilla fighters such as Al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq (now known as ISIL). The gains made by the Bush administration against Islamic extremism (which they in part created in Iraq) were overshadowed by terrible and often deliberate decisions that took an immense human, financial and political toll.

Obama stepped into the White House left behind by the Bush administration. The West was humbled by its ordeal in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the recession. What changed? How do we measure the difference between the Obama Doctrine to that of George Bush? After all Obama admitted earlier this month that he had no strategy to deal with ISIL. Should we assume that Bush’s war on terror for all its monumental flaws was inherently more successful than Obama’s?

This is where I am inclined to disagree with those who criticise Obama. Both administration’s have the same calculations that they are at war and they will use whatever means necessary to eliminate that threat. The difference is the methods involve eliminating it. The previous administration bludgeoned its way to ‘victory’ almost indiscriminately while Obama has adopted a covert strategy of engaging with Islamic extremism which limits the amount of American civilians and soldiers lost in the process. As former CIA agent Michael Hayden comments;

“And so, we’ve seen all of these continuities between two very different human beings, President Bush and President Obama. We are at war, targeted killings have continued, in fact, if you look at the statistics, targeted killings have increased under Obama.”

Obama prefers small wars from afar using drones and airstrikes rather than deploying American soldiers. He has even targeted American civilians involved in extremism. He rarely speaks of idealistic notion of uprooting regimes. The ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, black sites and detention areas have been shut down and Obama still maintains an equal level if not more ruthless efficiency in targeting terrorist leaders and organisations at a lower cost to the United States’ prestige.

Low intensity shadow wars, irregular warfare, untypical ways of waging military engagements seem more suitable in the hands of Obama. This can not be better illustrated by the successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden (May 2nd, 2011) by SEAL Team Six which stood in stark contrast to the failure of traditional military intervention in Libya in March 2011. Before ISIL came to prominence ISIL was decimated by United States Army Special Forces under the jurisdiction of the Obama administration. On April 18th, 2010 new leaders of AQI, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint operation conducted by American and allied Iraqi forces in Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad.

Overseas Operations Contingencies (a.k.a The Global War on Terror)

The military footprint becomes smaller and easier to manage locally, domestically and internationally while expanding the re-branded Overseas Contingency Operations (a.k.a War on Terror) to many more countries across the world. This can be exemplified by his statement that he will target terrorism anywhere across the world in his speech.

Team Obama employ an increasingly elastic interpretation of the 9/11-inspired Authorization for the Use of Military Force and expanded covert ops, special ops, drone strikes and regime change to peoples and places beyond the range of the original law, and certainly beyond the limited scope of CIA covert action under Bush. If critics of Obama were to call this ‘soft power’ think of it as ‘smart power’.

The Obama Doctrine rarely interrogates, it simply kills and as the result the drone-strikes have attracted much criticism and horror. The tactics of the Obama administration are still illegal and an affront to the U.S Constitution and in many ways the laws introduced by the Patriot Act have been tightened under the Obama administration. Yet the administration’s bombings pale in comparison to the Bush administration war crimes in Iraq, the use of napalm and chemical weapons in Vietnam and Cambodia by Nixon and Johnson, the leveling of Japanese cities by firebombing and nuclear bombs in 1945 under Roosevelt and Truman and other such crimes perpetrated by the White House.


However ISIL presents a new challenge to the Obama Doctrine,  the Overseas Contingency Operations and his past methods of waging war against jihadist extremists. The problem is simple. Unlike Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, ISIL cannot be defeated in the shadows. They are armed to the teeth with military hardware from Iraqi, American and Syrian caches, battle-hardened and a lethal combination of both guerrilla and traditional lightning military tactics. They also wear their war crimes likes badges of pride and are far more aggressive in promoting their ideology via propaganda than Al-Qaeda ever did. Obama’s every single move in the war on terror is now scrutinized.

If you bring down one enemy, ultimately someone even worse and far more powerful can replace him. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIL are an army as much as they are a terror cell and they do not campaign like Al-Qaeda who from their beginnings were covert, guerrilla fighters fighting in their various countries of operations (i.e Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, India etc.).

Then there is the second problem which comes into the equation that President Obama, like his predecessor, experienced; ideology. The fight against Islamic extremism is (as quoted in a previous article) the equivalent of a modern hydra. It cannot and will not be defeated by conventional military means.

As Jason Burke quotes “high-tech weaponry, militarism and eradication…may be useful to treat the symptom but does not, and will never’ solve the questions surrounding Islamic extremism which is flourishing afflicting the likes of  Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Saudi Arabia and more. Al-Qaeda’s decimation has seen ISIL, the Al-Nusra Front, Boko Haram and others assume the mantle of waging  jihad. You cannot wage permanent war against ideologies and methods, it is unsustainable even for the United States, not just economically, but in the eyes of a war weary public.

The fascistic subversion of Islam into  neo-Wahabbist and neo-Salafist ideological cores by factions such as ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and various terrorist factions have to be isolated and destroyed. This can only occur with a substantial reform by states of various educational systems and religious doctrines across the Middle East which promote and staunchly protect radicalized versions of the Islamic faith’. This is best seen in Saudi Arabia a state that regards Al-Qaeda as an enemy promotes the 18th century Wahhabi version of Islam  to counter what it sees as the threat of Shi’a Muslims spreading their version of Islam, a main source of which come from Iran.

These indirect causes are bear greater significance.  Islamists, Salafists, Wahabbists, Sunnis, Sh’ia Muslims and more  are divided and while this remains there is little hope that the political and religious grievances will be resolved particularly when various segments of the Western population are misinformed on the finer details of how the faith works. Change must also be facilitated by moderate Muslim political and religious leaders.

This problem coincides with the continued way in which the West conducts itself in Middle Eastern politics which not only failed dismally in Iraq, but also in the wake of the still-born Arab Spring. The problems are vast and the solutions unattainable at present moment.  Destroying ISIL would not destroy religious extremism. What is required is  a combination of carefully planned short-term political plans and military operations with that of long-term educational and intellectual solutions to the problems from within and outside the Middle East.

On the other side the war on terror’s conduct  has led to many voicing concerns about the impact on civil liberties, the cost of the additional security focused changes and the implications of the invasions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The episodes of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assage, the militarisation of police forces in the United States and the NSA surveillance program are examples of these major concerns. In taking the fight to extremism (de-facto permanent war) we have been forced to compromise the democratic ideals and international rules we strive to live by. Is it a necessary evil to eliminate ruthless organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS?  Or is it a misguided strategy that fosters radicalism and creates enemies not just on a terrorist level but a state level? It is one of the big questions of our time.

So what are Obama’s solutions to ISIL? As he outlined and reiterated on the eve of 9/11 he will harness alliances such as NATO and the UN to contain ISIL and pursue the root of the problem which lies in Syria.  This is where ISIL’s main headquarters are located from which they are waging a three front war in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. He also does not give ISIL any recognition as a state by labeling them what others (particularly mainstream media) and themselves call them ‘Islamic State’. It would also be surprising that Special Forces were not already on the ground, if not since the beginning of ISIL’s Northern Offensive as ‘advisors’.

The United States are one of many players in the current Middle Eastern proxy war but they did not ultimately create the series of interconnected micro-conflicts between authoritarian governments and the various Islamic extremists. The catalyst for these wars were ultimately the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011. The United States, like all of us, are sometimes witnesses to spontaneous historical events  originally beyond our control.

The question as to whether Assad will accept the invitation of U.S airstrikes in Syria knowing that they will potential target his forces as well as ISIL has quickly been identified as a serious source of contention. Inevitably the stance of Russia, Iran and China will be of crucial importance and a line the U.S government must tread with extreme caution. The Russian Federation has announced that any air strikes in Syria will be considered as an act of aggression.

However the United States must stop supplying weapons to hard-line jihadist and Islamic extremists in Syria, via their allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, (who have supported hard-line extremists) such as the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.  Evidence on the ground and many newspaper outlets indicate that the Free Syrian Army committed to bringing down Assad work openly with the Al-Nusra Front. They also have a substantial list of human rights abuses and war crimes much like the Islamic extremists which according to Human Rights Watch include the execution of civilians and pro-government officials alike dating back to beginning of the war like Assad.

Using  broad coalition capabilities using institutions and rallying the international community (including Russia and China) is a more legitimate method of pursuing ISIL and ending the Syrian Civil War. ISIL would have no better opportunity to strike at America than killing, torturing and decapitating  ground troops. The Kurds are the last remaining reliable ally against both Assad and ISIL and supporting them appears to be the priority of Obama and Cameron. They must starve ISIL and the FSA of financial power, weaponry, address the political grievances of regional groups and powers and continue supplying humanitarian aid.

The default instinct of President Obama is restraint and analysis before action. He addresses the world as it is, not as he would wish it to be, a stance of an a-typical foreign policy realist. Deploying ground troops to depose of Assad and ISIL will not be the end of the regional conflict. The shale gas revolution means the United States is becoming  increasingly autonomous in terms of producing energy. This in turn easing its dependence on oil rich Gulf monarchies in the Middle East. Petro-politics still remains important but less so than it has before.

The previous administration operated as it would like the world to be, particularly in its effort to ‘democratise’ the Middle East which was a dangerous illusion when applied to the Middle East. The spectacular  failure is a major factor (though not the sole reason) in why the West stands where it is today in the region. Non-intervention and under intervention had terrible consequences in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s which was followed by over-intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan which has been again followed by military uncertainty over Syria and Iraq.

Those who claim “If only Obama golfed less!” the United States would surely be able to fix things in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and any other trouble spot in the world are wrong. The Middle East’s current predicament is far too complex for even a super-power like the United States and President Obama to solve unilaterally  nor are the great powers solving a situation that has developed into a proxy war. The world under the Bush administration was far less complicated in the 2000s. The Obama administration cannot contain all foreign fighters who flock to the region. This responsibility lies with regional powers in the Middle East (some of whom are currently rallying behind the U.S to defeat ISIL) and the European nations including the stance of Vladamir Putin and Russia who are allies of Assad.

There are no simple solutions to the crisis and the question of jihadist extremism or and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Obama’s strategy for ISIL which includes using new alliances (even with Iran), using  multilateral institutions to isolate the ideological threats, and containment is effectively the only way we can fight terrorism at this current moment. Whether this strategy will be used simultaneously against the current Syrian government could have grave repercussions in the international theater.

It is not only exclusively the West that can solve the Middle East. The infamous ‘red-line’ of Obama in the wake of the Ghouta chemical attacks,  the consequences of deposing of Gaddafi in Libya and of-course the Iraq War are factors which should influence our thinking. We cannot remain disengaged from the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis and dangers to European security are too great a threat now to ignore  yet we cannot keep repeating the cycle of mistakes made in recent history.These are times where errors of judgement can be dangerous for the politically charged atmosphere across the globe blighted by nationalism, separatism, religious extremism and economic downturn.

New strategies for new enemies are required and Obama up to a point recognises that. How effectively  he realises these goals will be subject to scrutiny now and until the end of his presidency.

Matthew Williams